Getting in the Game: All About Writing Contests

Getting in the Game: All About Writing Contests

by Christina Kapp, TWC Outreach and Development Coordinator

When I was in high school I won a sweater in a raffle. Long-sleeved and cropped, it was made of white angora on one side, black wool on the other, with a braided seam down the middle. It was hideous, unless you happened to be a mime. Nevertheless, I had won it, so this fuzzy sweater-trophy lived in my closet for the next two decades.

I think of this sweater every time I enter a writing contest.

The thing about raffles is that the odds of winning are pretty low. You buy a ticket with no real expectation of winning—usually you’re supporting a cause of some sort—and when the winner is announced and it’s not you, it’s easy to smirk and say, “I never win anything.” Which is generally true, odds being what they are.

But writing contests aren’t sweater raffles. They’re competitions. We don’t think about them in terms of odds but in terms of judgement. We have opened a vein and bled our heart and soul onto the page. We want our effort to be recognized. We think contests are the opposite of random, and we become deeply invested.

One of the standard bits of advice about submitting to literary magazines is to aim for one hundred submissions in a year. That’s a high bar, but the reason for this approach is that publishing creative work is often a numbers game. Acceptance rates tend to be low—often anywhere from 1%-15% of submissions received—so a piece is likely to be rejected many times before it finds a “home.” So a writer’s best strategy is to research markets carefully, submit to multiple publications “simultaneously,” and continue to submit regularly.

The first problem with contests is that writers tend to wait for contest results before they submit elsewhere, which can take months. Writers wait because the stakes and rewards of a contest feel high, even though the statistical likelihood that a piece will win is very low, which doesn’t work in the writer’s favor.

The second problem with contests and one of the reasons the stakes feel higher is that contest fees range from $10 to $25 per piece, whereas most publications do not charge fees for regular submissions. Once a credit card is involved in a submission, a writer is likely to wait to see if their investment pays off rather than move on to other possibilities.

(Side note: Some publications have instituted “tip jar” fees for regular submissions to offset costs. Plenty of publications have free regular submissions, however, so it’s possible to avoid fees and still find wonderful placements for your work.)                   

I don’t mean to be a pessimist when it comes to contests. I’m not. Winning is amazing. You’ll feel like a parade should be thrown in your honor.

However, the flip side is that not winning or being recognized in a contest can end up feeling worse than a regular rejection because you paid for it, you waited a long time for the result, and getting a rejection letter that celebrates a list of people whose writing was judged to be better than yours can be hard to shake off.

So what to do?

This is where my high school sweater raffle can offer a little perspective. Like raffles, contests are a long shot, but they also provide needed funds to independent presses and litmags. In choosing a contest, it’s best to put money toward places in the literary community that you want to support, while also remembering that it’s just a submission and manage your expectations.

With that in mind, some tips:

  1. Don’t submit to a contest run by a publication or organization that you’ve never heard of because meeting the deadline feels good. There’s a wonderful sense of accomplishment in meeting a deadline, but research contests with a critical eye. If you don’t have a clear sense of that publication or organization’s aims or aesthetic, it’s a good idea to look elsewhere.
  2. If possible, choose a contest that gives you something back for your entry fee. Some contest fees include a copy of the winning issue, a chapbook, or a half-year subscription in the price of your entry. This is a wonderful way to get something back, whether you win or lose, and helps you get a better sense of what that publication or organization is looking for, should you choose to submit again in the future.
  3. Keep submitting, even as you wait for the contest results. Always read contest rules and guidelines carefully, but unless the contest explicitly says that you shouldn’t simultaneously submit, keep sending the piece out. Yes, this means that if the piece is accepted elsewhere, you’ll lose your entry fee because you’ll withdraw from the contest immediately. (You MUST do this. It’s not optional.) Choose other publications to submit to carefully so that if you get an acceptance, you’ll be giddy with excitement and happily give up your contest fee.
  4. Research contests carefully. The best place to find a good contest for your work is with a publication or organization that you read or engage with regularly and feel like your aesthetic aligns well with theirs. Some places to find contests are:

Good luck with your contest submissions and—I’m so sorry, but you knew it was going to come to this—may the odds be ever in your favor!

Christina KappChristina Kapp teaches Writing Short Stories and Flash Fiction and Where Do I Begin. She doesn’t enter a lot of contests, but once in a while something strikes her fancy. Read her most recent contest win here: